Years ago, in a critique of one of my fictional works, a major plot hole was pointed out to me that involved toileting of all things. You read that right, folks. I had an issue related to the poohs and wees.
So here’s the scenario: two warriors were being held prisoner, their hands and feet bound. Within the original story timeline, they were bound for two weeks, but at least were feed and watered. Not once did the narrative mention anything about the characters being allowed to relieve themselves.
The critiquer had said the following:
[T]he thing everybody in fiction likes to pretend it doesn’t exist, is the toilet 😉. How exactly are they going to the toilet? You don’t have to go into details, like “Drezel emptied their shit bucket”, but if their hands were untied, I can easily imagine some off-page arrangements have been made. But if their hands are tied for two weeks, I’m wondering how exactly are they managing it. Is [Bayden] taking them out the back and holding their pants down while they do it? That would be incredibly awkward for everyone involved 😀. Feeding the prisoners like they were babies is one thing, but changing their diapers is a whole [other] issue.
When I read that critique, I was gobsmacked. It was such an obvious thing, but I never once thought about it. And you know what… the critiquer was right.
Since then, I have corrected this issue by not only changing the timeline within the plot, but also adding a little detail about the prisoners being escorted under armed guard to the trees to relieve themselves.
And today, whenever I consciously consider the toileting situation within ALL of my stories, regardless of the situation. Sometimes, it is a “don’t bother mentioning it” situation, but there are opportunities to add in the hilarity if I let it.
But that original critique got me thinking. (And yes, you can see the smoke coming out of the ears.)
Toileting, in general, seems to be a big taboo within fiction, yet it’s something that every human being needs to do at least once a day, sometimes multiple times a day. So why are we so afraid to add mentions of toileting to our fictional writing?
I posted a question on this topic on my social media feeds and got the following response:
I’ll play my “It doesn’t drive the plot forward, so it shouldn’t be in the book” card.
Well… The fact that not one, but two, critiques critiques of my own story had commented on the exact same issue is proof that it is a thought that enters readers’ minds, and hence should be addressed. It only took one sentence: “Bayden hurried to gather an armed protector detail to escort a blindfolded and bound Derek to the trees.”
I asked my fellow writers about toilets mentioned in other stories.
I can only think of one author that spent any time on the subject in a serious fashion (not just to be funny), and that’s Jean Auel. In Mammoth Hunters, one character taught Ayla to go toilet without getting undressed, and later in the series, Ayla takes note of the cesspits dug for the summer camps. But what about other written fiction? There must be others. Please people, help enlighten me.
Of course, my fellow writers reminded me of the numerous scenes involving toilets in the Harry Potter series, starting with the troll in The Philosopher’s Stone. But if I re-read those scenes, none of them talk about the characters’ need to actually use those toilets. Instead, the toilets at Hogwarts are constantly being destroyed (or flooded, thanks to Moaning Myrtle).
It turns out that not every writer is afraid to include a mention of those bodily functions that everyone needs to do. In Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card, Bean is so scared that he has to run to the toilet to empty his bowels. In Mercedes Lackey’s first book Arrows of the Queen, Talia notes that the Collegium has the relatively modern flush toilets. In Dragonsong (Anne McCaffrey), Menolly has to use the necessities after her feet have been damaged. In one of the Judy Blume’s books, the protagonist notices she’s gotten her period for the first time while she’s peeing in her bathroom. Heresy by SJ Parris opens with the main character, the historical monk Giordano Bruno, being caught reading a heretical text in the privy. And even Stephen King has been known to dabble with toileting-related topics.
Toileting issues for captives is also not something new within fiction. In Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind), when Richard is chained to the ceiling being tortured by the Mordsith, he chooses to just let go, making a smelly mess of himself. While this was an option for the characters in my story, it wasn’t the type of setting that would enable trust, and hence I chose the armed-escort-to-the-trees option.
It turns out that toilets within literary fiction wasn’t as uncommon as I had first thought. So, why do we fiction writers often forget about these little details that could ground our stories in reality?
Well, it comes down to one simple answer: gross factor. People don’t want to be grossed out by all the details of the reddening face as our characters try to squeeze that hardened pooh out of their bums. They don’t want all the details about the clots of blood that came with the period flows. They don’t want to hear that the pee was yellow.
However, it has been my experience that readers do ask those questions of what happens to the prisoner who is bound by his hands and feet and needs to actually use the Little Alien’s Room. A single sentence addressing the issue, and the reader is happy to move on.
So, can you think of other examples in written literature where the characters actually use the toilet?
I definitely have toilets in mine. They tend to be thrown up in, but they do go to other uses, and in some ways are even status symbols, pit latrine vs. composting toilet. There are the humorous moments, like when a character says they’re going to the outhouse as an excuse to leave, only to have someone comment that it’s an indoor toilet. But there are also serious times, when someone is too weak from illness to reach the toilet themselves and so must be helped there and steadied while on it.
This makes my books sound like they are littered with toilets! They are not. But as one of those readers who does inevitably ask questions like “really, the Hogwarts plumbing hasn’t been messed with in a millennium?” I find it important to include that sort of thing in most books. Like it or not, they’re part of life.
I have deliberately taken the time to at least mention the toileting situation within my story, where it’s warranted. I even make a joke about it. “Waterfall, river, raindrops.” Meanwhile, the other character is bouncing around.
I love this topic! Hmm. That makes me sound wierd. What I mean is that I wonder the same thing, particularly when characters are captives, and nothing is mentioned. Wondering pulls me out of the story. I made a point, in my book, to at least mention what’s being used in the cells, just a few words, for that reason. Also, it gave me a chance to show the “humanness,” or not, of the captors.
Fun post, thanks!
I had done exactly the same within my own writing for that very same reason. It was mentioned to me in a critique, and hence needed to be addressed, even if it was only by a sentence or two.
Glad you enjoyed the post.